Staller Center Technology Evolves with Film Technology

A look at how changes in film technology over the years have affected the Stony Brook Film Festival.

Shachar Langlev has been making films for 10 years, having learned how to shoot on actual celluloid film as a student at Brooklyn College. But on Wednesday, his short film "Folkswagon" screened at the Stony Brook Film Festival in a digital Blu-ray format.

"Digital [production] is cheap and it’s everywhere," said Langlev, who added that Blu-ray discs cost $3 to make whereas reproducing films in other formats could cost as much as $100 a pop. "It’s very accessible. I don’t know if it will stay because technology runs so fast. Soon, we’re just going to stream from the clouds by pushing a button."

Just as the technology Langlev and his peers use to make their films has changed dramatically over the years, so has the technology needed to facilitate screenings at venues like Stony Brook University's .

When the festival first began 17 years ago, the Staller Center had the capacity to screen 16 mm films, 35 mm films – and even VHS tapes.

"Remember those?" says Patrick Kelly, Director of Operations for the Film Festival and the Staller Center.

As he gives a rundown of the Staller Center's screening capabilities, it's clear that the evolution in technology has had an impact on the ability of the Film Festival to deliver quality films – both in content and presentation – to its audiences year after year.

For the audience it means "everything from more variety to a more controlled presentation ... a presentation that is for the most part free of defects," Kelly said. "It's been a long time coming."

The Staller Center quit using VHS tapes in 2000, he said, and in 2005, the film festival began accepting films in Digi-Beta format. That's short for Digital Betacam, a widely-used form of broadcast videotape. Suddenly, the pool of films from which the festival could choose its offerings opened up widely – which wouldn't have happened had the festival stuck exclusively with older formats.

Once that happened, Kelly said, "the audience was noticing that technically the films we were presenting were of a higher quality. We were happy, there was really no other way to put it."

Blu-ray fell into the mix last year in one instance: out of desperation, when the tapes for one film never arrived, the staff figured out a way to make a screening happen using a Blu-ray disc on a computer. Now equipped properly, the screenings during this year's film festival are a mix of formats: 35 mm, Digi-Beta, digital Blu-ray.

"It just looks really good," Kelly said of the Blu-ray technology. "And for us it’s an intermediate step between the old style projection of 35mm and the new technology that’s with us now but we don’t own yet, which is digital cinema."

Digital cinema projection (DCP) is where the Staller Center's administration hopes to be within the next three to six months if the funding – totaling approximately $100,000, according to Kelly – can be secured. In DCP, films are stored not on reels or discs but on hard drives, which are then downloaded directly to computer-based projectors. 

DCP's advantages are plenty, Kelly said. Prep time before a screening is reduced from hours to minutes. A film that costs $350 to ship to and from Europe might now cost around $25. And the image will always be pristine, without the breaks or scratches that can sometimes happen in the older film formats.

"The technology is fun, and it’s a way of making sure the presentation to the audience is as clean and pure as we can make it," Kelly said, "and that’s the biggest reason to embrace it."


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